From Iceland — What's So Special About the World Cup?

What’s So Special About the World Cup?

Published June 16, 2010

What’s So Special About the World Cup?
 I go years without caring much about spectator sports. 2 years, to be exact. Sure, I enjoy watching games now and then, but I don’t actively seek it out. Except when the World Cup and the European Championship is on. Then I become obsessed. I find myself getting up at some ridiculously early hour of the morning to watch China play Costa Rica. Switzerland and Ukraine’s mutual attempt at winning by putting the opposite team to sleep at the last World Cup is 3 hours of my life I will never get back (even the penalty shootout, that stomach-churning torture, was boring), yet I never considered turning off the television. People who know me well are shocked when I turn from a mild-mannered, bookish, arty type into a lunatic who froths at the mouth about a referee denying a perfectly legitimate goal to Belgium. Belgium! The extent of my opinion on Belgium the rest of the time is… uh… I don’t think I have a single opinion about Belgium, actually. The European Championship is also good, but nothing quite obsesses me like the big show itself. What makes the World Cup so special? Let me list three reasons why.
1) Humanity Shares a Moment Together
Sure, despite claims otherwise, most human beings don’t concern themselves with this month-long affair, but approximately a sixth of our species watched a game last time around, and roughly three quarters of a billion people saw the final. So if nothing else, it’s the closest thing that mankind has to a shared moment. That’s something to cherish. How many other things can people from all over the world talk about together? Well, horrible, awful tragedies like the Iraq War or 9/11, I grant you, but “did you see these people get massacred on the news” isn’t the best conversation starter.
2) Except for Belgium
No other event has built in allegiances for everyone. I have good friends from countries here and there in the world, Argentina for instance, so I feel an emotional connection to those countries and support them usually. And then there are countries that make perfect villains, like chauvinist, fascism-inventing Italy (okay, okay… to be fair I don’t really have anything against the country itself, but goddamn are the Italian national team easy to dislike). In nearly every match it’s easy to support one team over the other, because we all have opinions about, and feelings for, be they sensible or prejudicial, most countries on the globe. Except for Belgium.
3) World Cups Can Take Us on an Emotional Journey
The average person can expect to be in good health and of sound mind through 15 World Cups in his or her lifetime. They arrive every four years and throw up enough memorable moments to stick in your mind. As When Saturday Comes pointed out, they are milestones in our lives. Of course, for us obsessives, they can themselves be important events in our lives. The winter of 1997-8 was miserable for me, I was adrift in life, and had no clue what I wanted to do with myself. But that spring something started changing. For the first time ever I started writing creatively in a regular fashion, first fiction and then later poetry. Then I fell into my obsessive ways and watched the World Cup, which paid off marvelously. My beloved French national team won. I was happy beyond reason and was lifted out of the depression I had been in for the last year. The elation lasted me through the summer and into winter and fueled me in my creative pursuits. The winter of 2005-6 was the very opposite. I was happily married, living in a lovely apartment and had an active social life. That next autumn crazy people bought the house my apartment was in (they would sneak in when they thought my wife and I weren’t home, but I caught them once) and later kicked us out. My wife and I separated in the summer of 2007 and that same summer four of my five closest friends in the city I lived in moved away. I’m not saying that France winning in the final would’ve changed anything, but having the French national team be world champions would’ve given me something to live for besides a fear of death.* I know that no World Cup will ever affect me as deeply as these two. I will never again be 17, watching my heroes triumph. I will never again watch the greatest of those heroes completely lose his shit in front of 750 million people.** Nevertheless, the other world cups I watched, 1990, 1994, 2002, all gave me thrills (South Korea getting to the semifinals) and disappointments (I still can’t believe the referee disallowed that goal Belgium scored against Brazil). The World Cup is the only event on a regular schedule that affects me like that. I know that four years from now I will be gripped by World Cup fever, the same goes for the World Cups which will happen after eight, twelve, sixteen years and so on. I will be sitting in front of a screen caring deeply which of two groups of 11 people wins. Even if of one of those two teams is Belgium.

* I kid. Mostly.
** Watching the France semi-final against Portugal, my mom said to me: “Zidane inspires such faith that I would trust him with my infant.” Today you wouldn’t give a baby to Zidane out of fear he would headbutt it into outer space.

Photo by Thomas Duchnicki

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